S&S perches on the nearest speaker to talk to Dubai-dwelling band, The Boxtones about the Middle East’s live music scene, and their recent decision to go it alone...
Having made the decision this February to set up their own company and go ‘freelance’, The Boxtones are delving into relatively unchartered territory for a Dubai-based live events band.
Yet, with a repertoire of over 400 songs and a number of stellar performances across the Middle East behind them – not to mention band members originating from all over the globe– this eclectic quintet has proven a far cry from the usual Thursday night 8pm slot down your local.
Initially doing the circuit on the Bahrain live music scene before moving over to Dubai three years ago, the band has taken their mix of covers and original material across the venue board; from grand locales like the du Arena, to intimate weddings and conferences, to a house band spot at the eternally popular Nell Gwynn pub at the Byblos Hotel in the Marina.
Lead singer Gary Tierney doubles as the band’s manager, supported on vocals by fellow Scot, Louise Peel.
Gary’s sister Gillian Tierney is on the drums, and American keyboardist Will Janssen and French-Canadian bassist Patrick Thibault make up the current wholly-international face of the group.
So what tempted the Boxtones to move from Bahrain to the glittering lights of Dubai?
“In Bahrain it’s quite a small circuit,” states Louise, who met Gary having been placed with him in a wedding cover band some years back.
“You can only go round the same five or six bars doing the same thing. So three years ago we agreed to come to Dubai, where there’s just a much bigger market, a corporate scene, and a lot more opportunity.”
Naturally, these opportunities have meant the Boxtones have come across a diverse array of production over the course of their UAE performances, with their experiences sounding like something of a mixed bag to say the least...
“A lot of companies seem to function on getting as much manpower as they can, but at a cheap rate. Sometimes they show up with 10 guys who have no clue what a monitor or a cable is,” Patrick states. “Of course, you need some people to put a rig together, but once that is done you shouldn’t need more than three guys. One guy prepping the board, one guy patching everything through and someone else focusing on the electronics.”
Rather than it being a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, Gary intimates that the problem is some not even knowing how to cook it.
“Fortunately though, we’ve found it’s easy to make a lot of contacts, and a lot of the guys here are really decent and know their stuff,” concedes the manager.
“The Showforce guys do a lot of the big productions, and we know them well from that. Flash too - they supply and maintain the du Arena - so we’ve worked with them pretty successfully in the past.”
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So what do The Boxtones consider their minimum requirement in preparation for a gig? A keyboard and a guitar?
“Well Louise does bring her own wireless mic just to be on the safe side,” laughs Gary. “But generally we don’t demand or expect a lot because it is so varied here.
As long as you get the minimum – which is enough tracks to plug ourselves in, it’s loud enough for people to hear us, and enough wedges so we can hear ourselves. Then it’s up to the sound engineer to try and do the mix as best he can.”
Fortunately Gary is also a trained sound engineer, so is suitably equipped to deal with any hairy situations that arise.
“Most of the time I’ll go to places and I’ll say to the engineer, ‘you set it up, I’ll have a listen and then maybe tweak it.’ Because it’s hard sometimes to be on the stage and off it at the same time.” he adds.
These hairy situations have - over the years - incorporated times where the band has pitched up with no equipment to be seen, no stage built, and experienced various tech failures that have - on more than one occasion - forced a band member to retrieve the basic provisions from home just so the group can perform.
“It’s great when you turn up and the stuff is actually set up,” advances keyboarder Will. “But then by the same token – we once did an event at the Jebel Ali golf club; they were super efficient, setting up the day before on the beach.
Then gale force winds hit in the night and the whole set was ruined. One big projector screen actually flew through the drum kit. So at times you can understand why some preparation is left it to the last minute!”
As far as the gear used and supplied by the band is concerned, for The Boxtones – space saving is key.
“It has to be easily transportable,” supports Gillian - the drummer responsible for the heaviest kit. “We’re doing gigs all over the place so we need stuff that’s easily compactable and can fit in one van.”
While the odd production hiccup is to be expected in any events industry – of the multitude that have gone swimmingly for the Boxtones, do any particular gigs stand out?
“I think that from a production standpoint, without doubt the best rigging was at the My Music X event,” states Louise.
“The sheer amount of gear we had, the stage, the lights. It was in the marina, outdoors, the stage was huge and really high off the ground. It was brilliant”
Away from the grand gigs and launches, for the more intimate performances, one particular stumbling block the band has repeatedly faced is the price of hiring equipment. Particularly, the high rates set by numerous sound companies in the region.
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In a seemingly saturated sound market - with a plethora of bands and performers wanting to hire equipment - according to The Boxtones there’s very little scope for a company offering reasonable rates for a standard equipment list.
“Sometimes you’ll pay more for the gear than you will the actual band,” says Gary, whose capacity as manager puts him solely in charge of the band’s bookings and new business.
“We’ll go in at a reasonable price, knowing that the client may not have the biggest budget –for example, for a wedding or something – but they don’t get that they also have to hire the sound equipment. They then realize they can’t then afford it, so just plump for a DJ instead. That happens a lot.”
It is these stumbling blocks that have led Gary and the band to look into supplying and purchasing all of the equipment they need to use themselves, thus cutting out the middle man and offering a service to venues that incorporates everything.
From setting up, to singing the set list, and even offering a DJ set in the interim while they’re not on stage. A new direction that’s symptomatic of the group’s desire to establish themselves not only as a company, but a stand-alone freelance band.
Undoubtedly a bold new direction, but one they believe is right, given their skill set, and an apparent gap in the market.
It’s also a move that’s required the band to add a few more non-musical skills to their arsenal, the bulk of which being self-promotion - territory that wasn’t previously really in their remit working six nights a week for six months straight under the parameters of a contract.
“We’re genuinely really hard working,” stresses lead female vocal Louise. “We know and appreciate how important it is to network in today’s scene. We cold call, we’ve even been in the bookshop buying business and marketing titles!”
A dedication to becoming the complete package that should serve The Boxtones well in their aim of becoming one of a shortlist of bands that promotes covers and original material, and boasts the business acumen to give those looking to hire bands, the very best bang for their buck. Coming to a venue near you soon...